Laura McLean

Three names this week, three self-chosen names representing four people and multiple subjectivities.

Our proper names identify us; make us knowable, socially and legally. Our forename, chosen by our parents, identifies us as an individual, usually signifying our gender. Our surname identifies us as belonging to a certain family, and tends to infer ones cultural background.

In my first blog post I reflected on the history of government surveillance in Britain, the state’s efforts to pin subjects to a 1:1 ratio of signifier and signified, in order for them to be catalogued, controlled, and instrumentalised.

When a figure becomes public though the recognition of their body of work however, this ratio is disrupted. In the words of Claire Colebrook, ‘one side of the proper name opens out to a terrain of concepts, while another side attaches to an individual with a personal history that is distinct from the broader project of concepts, sense and understanding’.[1]

The construction of Claire Fontaine, the Paris-based ‘readymade’ artist named after a popular brand of French notebooks, is performed as an illustrative strategy for the elusion of biopower. Her name represents a corpus of texts and objects produced by her ‘assistants’ Fulvia Carnevale and James Thornhill. Through their own desingularisation, and reconstitution as Fontaine, they construct a singular figure who is more than the sum of her parts, ‘a whatever-singularity and an existential terrorist in search of subjective emancipation’.[2]

Such self-estrangement, explained Carnevale in a recent lecture at Goldsmiths, is crucial to the act of ‘human strike’, a movement of revolt against the part of ourselves that is complicit with oppression. For women, says Fontaine/Carnevale, the refusal of the unremunerated work of motherhood, of reproductive labour, strikes against the paradigm of oppression that is presented as fact within patriarchal society and the libidinal economy. The movement of human strike, they say, unmasks ‘the whateverness of everybody as the open secret that social classes hide’.[3]

‘Under this mask, another mask. I will never be finished removing all these faces.’

– Claude Cahun

Almost one hundred years ago, in her own human strike, Lucy Schwob adopted the name Claude Cahun, refuting her gendered and familial identifier. As an artist, Cahun’s own subjective emancipation was enacted through a performative practice. Her well-known photographic tableaus of costumed gender play (currently exhibited at the Southbank Centre as part of the Women of the World  festival) disrupted the objectification of the female form within the male dominated canon of surrealism, and indeed her work was entwined with her resistance against the occupation of German soldiers in Jersey, where she lived with her partner Marcel Moore. ‘Realities disguised as symbols’, she wrote, ‘are, for me, new realities that are immeasurably preferable. I make an effort to take them at their word. To grasp, to carry out the diktat of images to the letter.’

Accelerating back to the contemporary, this week saw the launch of the Displace…ment issue of …ment journal, guest edited by Rebecca Bligh and dedicated to Transfeminism, a term used by Paul (nee Beatriz) Preciado to describe ‘the displacement of the site of enunciation from a universal “female” subject to a multiplicity of situated subjects’, in their book Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era.[4]

In Testo Junkie, Preciado recounts the experience of taking testosterone over a three-month period. In contrast to Cahun’s surrealist strategy of displacement, of turning her realities into symbols, the confrontation of the materiality of gender by Preciado though the self-administration of pharmaceuticals sees the body as the convergence point for ‘a chain of political signifiers that have been materialized in order to acquire the form of a molecule that can be absorbed by my body.’

I’m not only taking the hormone, the molecule, but also the concept of a hormone, a series of signs, texts, and discourses, the process through which the hormone came to be synthesized, the technical sequences that produce it in the laboratory. I inject a crystalline, oil-soluble steroid carbon chain of molecules, and with it a fragment of the history of modernity. I administer to myself a series of economic transactions, a collection of pharmaceutical decisions, clinical tests, focus groups, and business management techniques. I connect to a baroque network of exchange and to economic and political flow-chains for the patenting of the living.[5]

Absorbing this flow of signifiers, Preciado performs a (post)human strike against the ‘biopolitical fiction’ of gender binaries. ‘I’m not taking testosterone to change myself into a man,’ they write, ‘nor as a physical strategy of transsexualism; I take it to foil what society wanted to make of me, so that I can write, fuck, feel a form of pleasure that is post-pornographic, add a molecular prostheses to my low-tech transgendered identity… T is only a threshold, a molecular door, a becoming between multiplicities.’

The liberation of inhabiting multiple selves is at the core of the practices represented by these three names. Displace…ment offers further opportunity to think through the political potential of nomadic subjectivities, to develop ‘new individual and collective forms of resistance’ which evade definition, and hence capture, by the biopowers that be.


[1] Colebrook, Claire, ‘Archiviolithic: The Anthropocene and the Hetero-Archive’, Derrida Today 7.1, p.22, Edinburgh University Press, 2014


[3] Fontaine, Claire, ‘Human Strike Has Already Begun’, Human Strike Has Already Begun & Other Writings, p.39, Mute & Post-Media Lab, 2013

[4] Preciardo, Beatriz, Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era, Feminist Press, City University of New York, 2013


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